A Diagnosis: Slavery in America

We were slaves to this Christian American Dream and didn’t even know it. We were blind in our bondage to busyness, bowing to the idol of an ideal family life, and justifying the deceptive cravings of our flesh to keep up with the people around us who were marching to the same busy-stressed out beat.

Busy.

Hasn’t that word become a status symbol in middle class America, like a medal we hang around our necks to show the world that we have achieved or are well on our way to getting there?  Or is it an invisible shackle, a collar around our neck, quietly and deceptively leading us to fill our days with tasks, appointments, responsibilities, and sometimes meaningless fluff? Busy is the way we climb ladders.

2 years ago, family life looked like this: busy jobs, a tight schedule, many chores to attend to on the weekends, evenings filled with Bart’s supervision/kids’ activities/homework/showers/crash into bed.  Exhaustion. Try to rest up on the weekends, be exceedingly thankful for 3 day weekends, and count down to longer breaks where we could really get away & reconnect to times of refreshing.  Sundays: go to church, get the groceries, make sure the laundry is “caught up” (ha!) & put away, take a look at the week ahead, try not to be anxious- you can do it, 5 days will pass in a flash.  Take a deep breath, go to bed, and there goes life.

2 years ago, family goals looked like this: stay on top of school work for kids and help them stay on track to get “good grades”, keep them busy with a variety of activities (sign up, practices, games, private lessons too if you can find them) so one day they will know what they’re passionate about and so they will stay busy and not get lazy, plan fun getaways and family vacations when you can (afterall, what is life if it isn’t all about making family memories?), attempt to aggressively pay off debt, save for the future, plan for the next home improvement project, be a good Christian family, stay plugged into church, & be a respectable and giving member of the community.

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We were essentially wearing ourselves out to check every box on the American Dream checklist.  As writer Shannan Martin said, we were chasing down the elusive American Dream, with a side of Jesus.  We wanted to do the right things, move forward, stay ahead of the game, be a good example to our kids. We wanted our kids to have a good childhood and growing up experience.  We wanted them to have every opportunity that we had growing up and more, if possible. We were looking at the blueprints we’d just received from our architect to finally give our 3 kids their own rooms and get us the master suite that we had waited for, sacrificed for, and justified that we deserved.

It wasn’t like we weren’t praying or seeking God individually, as a family, and in community.  We were growing in recognizable spurts, making shifts where necessary, and trying to find our niche to effectively serve others too.  We wanted to please God in all things. But we were exhausted. Something about this setup didn’t feel satisfying, or at the very least that it would be sustainable for very long.

We were slaves to this Christian American Dream and didn’t even know it.  We were blind in our bondage to busyness, bowing to the idol of an ideal family life, and justifying the deceptive cravings of our flesh to keep up with the people around us who were marching to the same busy-stressed out beat.  We fit in nicely with our name brand clothes and full schedules, but our insides were slowly withering away.  How can you pour from a cup that is dry? The secret places of our hearts were being suffocated by all the efforts required to keep all the balls in the air, the boxes checked each day, and the train moving forward.

Surely this could not be the abundant life Jesus speaks of- the mystical branch that bears much fruit.  Maybe these years are just meant to survive? Maybe we do, in fact, just live for the weekends, the summer breaks, & look forward to the much longed for retirement years?  And so we march on, not even knowing of the shackles we carry as we follow each other around the walls of the pit in which we dwell. Yes, we can see the blue skies above, but somehow that feels like the reward we earn for working hard in THIS season….we’ll get THERE in due time.

Have I ever told you that my biggest fear is wasting my life?  I’m not really scared of death or spiders or flying, but the thought of squandering the allotted sand in my hourglass makes me shudder in fear.  I’m not exactly sure that I can remember when I first started realizing that was such a driving force in my life, but it has become more powerful with each year that passes.  I sometimes wonder if am a minority in that type of thought process or if there are others who wrestle with this stewardship angst in their souls. If I had to guess, I would say that the process of facing up to the realities of death at a fairly young age had something to do with this motivator within me.  I just don’t take life for granted. If I’m given a string of days on this planet to know & enjoy God, then that’s what I want to spend my life pursuing. If my days are filled with the grace and resources to turn around multiply that grace and light in this world, then that’s what I want to spend my days pouring into.  If I’m not guaranteed tomorrow and God already has my days recorded in His book of life, then the only true thing I have to worry about is squandering my dash. Hence my biggest fear: wasting my life.

The problem I began to find with my pursuit of the American Dream, with a side of Jesus, was that my life was so filled with things to do that I never had time to intentionally reflect and recalibrate to make sure I was pouring out into the right things.  I was assuming my “yes” onto such a plethora of activities that I had zero margin.  I transposed the hope of not wasting my life onto a life that was busy with good things.  In fact, it was bursting with good things. But somehow I still felt exhausted and a bit hypocritical.  We had no vision or birdseye picture of the blueprints we were building from outside of this elusive American Dream (with a side of Jesus) that everyone around us was also chasing.  If we are given 80 years of life, will we look back then and praise God for the grace to build a life worthy of our calling in Him? Better yet, when we arrive in the kingdom of God, will we watch the reel of our dash played out and know with a blessed assurance that we poured all of our resources out to bring Him glory?

Of course perfection is an impossible standard by which to measure fractured souls, but is it possible to strive after a life not wasted?  I think if we look at Jesus, we can find our model of a life poured out, an unwasted life. In the earthly life of Jesus, we see a rhythm for the beat of life and it’s not the busy-stressed out beat of the American dream.  It’s the unhurried rhythms of grace that are held in place by margin, intentional space left to seek first His unseen kingdom and His righteousness with no agenda.  

Jesus came to redeem and to restore what is broken.  On the path to the cross, He modeled for us how to spend our one life, our grains of sand, in a way that is wise and fruitful for eternity.  Jesus came to show us the one true God, to fulfill His mission as the One and Only Lamb slain for the sins of many. If anyone had the weight of the world on His shoulders, it was Jesus.  He had a messy life, with sinful people surrounding Him, and needs constantly pressing in on Him. Yet, we see these regular rhythms in His life of getting alone to seek His Father. The life of Jesus was one of supreme accomplishment and productivity, but His main goal was to glorify His Father.  He never had so much to do that He didn’t allow for margin.  He had the wisdom to say NO to certain good works in order to say YES to the time needed to seek His Father in Heaven above all.

So why are we often too busy for that same margin?  Why are so many self-proclaimed followers of Jesus too busy to regularly commit to a time of worship, or to a daily discipline to the study of Scripture and prayer, or to embrace the vulnerable fellowship of doing life with other believers? Is it possible that we are a Christian culture, unknowingly wearing our shackles and circling the pit of busyness, squandering the sand in our hourglass without realizing it?  As the world around us shamelessly builds kingdoms in the sand, are we doing the same?  When was the last time that we pulled away from the hum of activity to be with our Father in Heaven to ask Him for His blueprints, the ones that are built on the Rock of Jesus and that will last for all of eternity?  From the Throne of Heaven, do we appear to be like the slaves in Egypt, exhausting our families in labors that are only in vain?

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  Psalm 127:1

In this current season of life, God has been so patient to teach me about His kingdom and pour out His grace to lead me as I repent over and over about my stubborn habits.  In the margin spaces of this time at home with a new toddler, He has been showing me a birds eye view of life in light of eternity- what things will count and what will have been a waste.  Repeatedly, I have asked Him for the grace to help me spend my one life in a way that brings Him glory.  I know my temptation will always be to swim with the current of the culture and try to make my own kingdom great, but I believe He hears my pleas to save me from that path.  I hear His truth reminding me that He will give me my daily bread, the vision/blueprints/resources needed for the fulfillment of the plan for each day, one day at a time. I just have to be willing to come to Him each day and seek all that I am lacking in myself.  Margin paves the way to prioritize getting to know the Author, the Architect, the Builder.  To know this One and Only Lord is to love Him. In loving Him, we are building a life unwasted.

In looking back, I am finding that God has given me 2 great thermometers in my life to help me gauge which kingdom blueprints I’m building with: how I spend my time and my money.  These are 2 great treasures and resources that He has given to each person to spend as we choose.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  

Matthew 6:19-21

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When I am living into the eternal kingdom of Jesus, my life will be filled with His rhythms of joyful, sacrificial generosity with both my time and money: my very life will be His for the taking. On the flipside, when my soul has wandered back into the slavery of earthly kingdom building, my life will be marked by rhythms of spending my time and money on my own selfish ambitions that are temporary and exhausting….giving will be stingy and without much personal sacrifice of my own desires.  One produces a slow, fruitful abundance that multiplies and lasts forever. The other produces a form of prosperity that eventually withers away and ends in the destruction of all that was built.  

The wisdom of Proverbs gives me yet another arrow pointing me in the way of freedom and true abundance:

The world of the generous gets larger and larger;
   the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.

The one who blesses others is abundantly blessed;
   those who help others are helped.”  

Proverbs 11:24-25, MSG

When I am longing for a life marked by blessing and growth, I first need to be generous toward God- not out of guilt, but out of a sincere delight and wonder over what He might build with my meager offering.  Building a life of abundance and multiplication can only happen when we seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6:33).  Fear of scarcity causes us to hold tightly to what we are already building without considering if it is what will last.  Fear of missing out or getting behind only drives us to say yes before we take the time to seek what we should be giving our yeses to; hence wasting our resources.  When we make room for more of God to inhabit space in our hearts and our days, His perfect love drives out that fear and makes a way for a life unwasted.  

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When we live to the glory of God, we can be sure that our lives will in fact fulfill their destiny. We don’t have to march to the stressed-out, busy, keeping up with the Joneses beat of the kingdoms of this world.  A narrow gate is open to us, with a Savior beckoning us to come & learn from Him the rhythms of grace that will satisfy our souls forever, even as we build a life on earth that will echo in eternity.  Day by day.  Grace upon grace.  Step by step. The Shepherd will faithfully lead us. 

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Walking by Faith

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

~Proverbs 13:12~

I wonder how many adults are really just children who grew up with the heart sickness of too many hopes deferred- too many of life’s disappointments?  Do we eventually stop dreaming God-sized dreams and default instead to the more attainable, temporal man-sized dreams?  It takes a lot of courage to actually name your hopes and dreams. Then it requires even more vulnerability to find out what fuels those dreams-if it’s worthy.  Even further still, it takes a WILD heart to accept the call to walk by faith into the hallway of your God- sized dreams.  And what happens when the path seems terrifying and nothing like what we’d imagined?  Do we keep going or look for an alternate route?  How do we respond when we have to decide if we’re going to be led by our fears or our faith in Jesus?

January of 2017:: God began to awaken some deeper desires in my own soul.  As I wrote them out in my journal, I could see that they were hopes that could easily be disappointed.  They were the top 10 of the deepest longings of my heart. They were of God-sized proportion and I felt naive and silly even listing them, but somehow I felt like it was something God was wanting me to do.

February of 2017::  My friend Alex and I flew to Houston, Texas to attend a conference geared toward women in their 20’s and 30’s.  It was there that so many of those crazy paths of longing became further illuminated and the blazing flame of courage to walk those paths of faith toward whatever He had in store for my life were lit.  God was up to something and Alex and I could both sense that it was bigger than what we could see.  I’ll never forget the last session of the conference, one of the speakers read from Mark 10 where the blind man encountered Jesus and Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vs. 51).  To which the blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” and Jesus immediately healed him.  We were then challenged with the question of our own desires: what would we answer if Jesus asked us the same question he asked the blind man?  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Immediately, my answer came in a prayer: Lord, I want YOU to fulfill all you have called me to on this earth.  I want to see your glory here.  And somehow in that moment of surrender I knew my world had shifted.

Little by little in the weeks following, God began to reveal the steps of His plan for both Alex and me and for our families.  Sometimes they were intertwined and other times they were as distinct and different as the God given dreams He had placed within each of our own hearts.  But the one thing they had in common was that they forced us to walk by faith in the face of our fears.  We, along with our husbands, learned how to recognize the whispered soul invitations to step out in faith and say “yes” to the great adventures of God’s plan- even with butterflies in our stomachs and sweaty hands.  We cheered each other on and pushed each other toward the glories on the other side of our fear.  And I would say that each of our families began to taste a sampling of what it looks like to live in the throes of God-sized dreams.  Small yeses gradually leading to bigger ones.

Almost exactly a year ago now, those God whispers began to culminate into an invitation to take one of the biggest steps of faith I’ve ever taken.  And so the week of Spring Break 2017, Bart and I quieted our family’s schedule and made a committed effort to seek the will of God through prayer.  I had certainly seen the beautiful fruit that came on the heels of the surrendered and scary yeses which I had offered to God thus far.  I could retrace the path of His faithfulness over the past 2 decades of walking with Him and could see His goodness, even in the midst of the hard and terrifying; but was this really Him?  Does this even make sense?  I wrestled in prayer with my own human reasoning.

I recounted to God our 5 year and 20 year plan.  I reminded Him of the sacrifices this would require of us.  I made lists of my weaknesses and failures and told Him there must be someone else who was stronger and braver.  And at every attempt to talk Him out of it, He would remind me of those God-sized dreams.  He would remind me of my yearning to NOT waste my life.  He would remind me of that prayer I had prayed in Houston when I asked HIM to fulfill whatever He has called me to on this earth…..of how He was always sufficient when I was clearly not….of how He calls His people to the very things that they think they can’t do.  He would meet me there in prayer with reminders of how sweet the taste of His glory is….and how pleased He is when His people step off the predictable path of sight and into the surrender of walking paths illuminated only by faith.  He reminded me of the cross of Jesus.  He reminded me of all the multitude of ways that He has scandalously loved me and blessed me so far beyond anything I could ever earn or deserve.  He began to replace my fear with the supernatural courage of Christ.  He began to remind me that the road of Calvary led to His glory.  And isn’t that exactly what I want most- to see His glory both in eternity and right here during my life on earth, right here in Carmi, Illinois?

And so, yet again, with butterflies still churning up a nervous stomach, sweaty palms surrendered to His greater yes, we leaned into the wonder of His mysterious plan and we began to take the first of many new leaps of faith.  I could almost hear the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us with song:

I have decided to follow Jesus, No turning back, no turning back.  The cross before me, the world behind me.  No turning back, no turning back.”

It’s been a year now since we said yes to the beautiful journey of adoption….a year that has changed us in precious ways I can barely articulate.  And just like God has shown me over and over, He doesn’t reveal all the glories awaiting you until you step out in faith- they are treasures wrapped up for trembling hearts who step forward in spite of the fear.  “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

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These past 12 months have been wrought with continual whispered reminders to trust Him with this life of faith and the story that He is writing with our adoption and even beyond that–the One that is filled with God-sized dreams, carried crosses, and glorious rewards that exceed anything I could purchase with my very life.  He rewards faith best with the gift of more of Himself….the true fulfillment of every person’s deepest hope and yearning.  And so, though I have continually found myself to be weak and fearful along the journey, I can say with confidence that I have seen Him begin to answer that prayer I begged of Him back in Houston– Lord, fulfill your plans for my life! Do it, Lord Jesus!  For  you alone are worthy!

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

~ 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 ~

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In the Classroom with Jesus

I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a mom, an aunt, and most importantly- a daughter of the King of kings.  Just like every woman, I wear any number of relational hats in any given day.  For me, in this present season of my life, another unique hat I get to wear is that of a teacher.  If I’m honest, the privilege and responsibility of that role was lost on me, due to my pride, for a good while.

You see, I completed three quarters of my teaching courses in college before I “jumped ship” into a potential career track where I felt I could ACTUALLY make a difference in this world.  I think God laughed that day!  It wasn’t that my own teachers hadn’t made a difference in my life (I never had a teacher I didn’t adore), or that I felt my Mom or Grandma (who were teachers) had failed to make a difference, or even that I doubted Bart (my husband-to-be) would change the world as a teacher.  In my mind, it was just too constricting for me- too many standards, too much teaching to a test, too much robotic methodology, & clearly no room for God to be God in a classroom.  Boy was I wrong!! It just took me awhile to become humble enough to learn that teaching is more about maintaining the posture of a student, with the God of all creation as your constant Mentor and Teacher.

 

I had watched Bart do it for many years- mold, shape, and influence lives for their good and God’s glory.  It was inspiring to me to talk with his students and/or read notes or cards they had written him and see what a difference his life had made in the course of theirs.  However, when I returned to the classroom after seven years as a stay-at-home-mom, it sure didn’t seem as glamorous.  In fact, it was downright HARD at times: exhausting, depleting, sometimes even depressing.  Even as close as I had been to the profession as a wife of a teacher and Mom of a student, I quickly realized that my perspective as an “outsider” was vastly different than the daily experience as an “insider”.  And so, it was after coming face to face with these insurmountable difficulties as a teacher that pride gave way to humility and this teacher learned how to be a student again.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

~Matthew 11:28-30~

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It doesn’t take long, as a teacher, to come face to face with the depravity of man.  Yes, there is beauty and hope and life all around (I will get to that later), but sometimes it can feel like the the darkness and brokenness surrounding you and threatening to pull you in is utterly inescapable.  Now, I have no idea when Jesus will return (nor do I think anyone will know), but I do think these words of Paul sure do fit the reality of what we see as educators and people of planet earth:

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive,disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power.”

~2 Timothy 3:1-5~

I so often see one of two reactions to this reality.  On one end of the spectrum, we get angry, fearful, and hopeless- eventually looking for a plan or path to escape from the raw exposure to the brokenness.  On the other end of the spectrum, many of those who stick it out become utterly exhausted, cynical, joyless, and secretly counting down the days until the weekend, summer break, or retirement.  And if I’m being brutally honest, on some of my hardest days, I have swung all over that spectrum.

I have been so depleted and worn out from the depth, width, length, and breadth of the impossible needs around me, that I would start to wonder what other job I might be able to do that would allow me to actually be fruitful and make a measurable difference.  Or I might wonder what other profession might provide better earthly payment equivalent to the stress- either by paycheck or even by worldly acknowledgement, awards, or vertical movement.

It was in this place, of striving so hard to meet these desperate, endless needs, but always coming up short, that I finally became brave enough to admit what I probably already knew:  I am not enough!  But God is.

He knows it’s hard and He calls His people to DO HARD THINGS.  He’s not blind to the needs.  He sees all of them, individually and collectively, down to their very root.  And He is the only one with the lasting solutions.  My job is not to muster up “enough” everyday, but to take the very little I do have each day and offer it up to Him.  Just like the little boy who gave Jesus his basket full of 5 loaves and two fish.  All He expects me to do is to be like that little boy- humbly offer my meager, daily (sometimes moment by moment) offering that is clearly “not enough” to feed the crowds what they need; and then watch Him do what He does best- miraculously multiply the offering into what is truly needed for the day (“Give us each day our daily bread” Luke 11:3).

The beauty of Jesus, the Stream of Living Water, providing the sufficiency is that, as His servant and disciple, rather than not having anything left in the tank at the end of the day for my personal needs, He is always faithful to provide a basket full of exactly what I need.

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”  Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.”

~John 6:8-12~

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Another lesson my Teacher began to open my eyes to in the midst of teaching some of the most challenging kids was my own soul amnesia.  In the midst of defiance, disrespect, and pouring out into the lives of indescribably broken souls I would forget why I do what I do and I would forget who I once was.

In the face of the HARDEST moments, my frustrations with students who are being temporarily unbearable (although temporary can be relative) can make me blind to the reality that these young souls are image bearers of God, broken as that reflection is sometimes, and they have a soul that is immortal.  They may be causing me untold irritation, causing my own “lack” to rise up within me, but first and foremost, He has called me to this: to be a jar of clay filled with His light and shining into the darkest of places.  

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

~2 Corinthians 4:7-12~

We who have been saved are also so prone to forget that we were once slaves to sin, alienated from God, and destined for wrath.  And in those moments of forgetting, its so tempting to grow prideful and frustrated with people rather than reflecting the love and grace that our Heavenly Father has freely granted to us.

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions...For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

~ Ephesians 2:4-6, 8-10~

And in our role as teachers, we have ample opportunity every single day to be His handiwork among lost, eternal souls.  When we focus on how undeserving we are of the grace we have received through the cross, it is so much more natural to respond to the impossibly HARD moments with His grace:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

~Colossians 3:12-15~

Sometimes, He has shown me, that He will reveal the hard places kids & families have been through simply to teach me how to pray for them.  What a glorious privilege it is to potentially be the ONLY person on the planet who might be crying out to God on behalf of a student or a family in need.  And, to think, I used to believe there was no room for God in a classroom.  He is there, in all of His glory, to the extent to which His people call upon His name.

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Another pitfall the Teacher began to reveal to me was the inward battle for earthly compensation: be it financial, a sincere pat on the back, acknowledgement, or even a break- my earthly mindset was crying out for something!  But He has taught me to be thankful that this is not how our educational system is currently set up.  And since it isn’t, I was able to learn some precious lessons that will mark me forever.

First of all, many of the tasks of an educator are LARGELY unseen by the eyes of the masses.  And so, since it is unseen by all eyes except God’s, I began to learn how to do my job for His approval alone and not the world’s notice.  What freedom, what joy, and what a blessing to live out of that place.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,  since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”

~Colossians 3:23-24~

And so, I began to hunger and thirst for these rewards from the Eternal God more than the fleeting approval of man and earthly compensation.  Isn’t it typical, that this God of the Upside Down Kingdom prefers gracious deeds done in secret rather than tooting our own horn via social media?

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

~Matthew 6:3-4~

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And finally, I began to see what a privilege it is to have the daily opportunity to pour time, energy, grace, patience, love, kindness, gentleness, and prayers on many kids’ lives, who may never even show gratitude in the least- and who will be the least likely to ever pay me back.  The world around make shake their head and think, “What a waste of an investment!” or, “How foolish to give your life away in such a way!” But just knowing Jesus sees, smiles, and stores up eternal treasures is more than I could ever ask.  In fact, my Teacher began to teach me to envision giving myself away each day to Him who was masked in the faces of the “least of these” who the rest of society would consider unworthy.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. 

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

~Matthew 25:31-40~

I often wonder how long God will allow me the privilege to teach.  It’s not for the faint of heart- that’s for sure- and if you honestly ask any school personnel about the challenges, you might get an earful.  But how I pray God would spark a revolution of teachers who see their jobs as a calling with opportunities for eternal investment and rich heavenly rewards.

Everyday it seems the gap grows wider between the those of us who are privileged with many of the things we take for granted- access to know God, warm homes, loving families to come home to, bellies full of food, clean water, endless opportunities for entertainment and growth- and those who will never know those earthly privileges.  For now, the thing I probably love most about my job is the constant, humble reminder it  gives me that I have been entrusted with SO much and so I am called to scandalously pour out what I’ve been given.  I don’t want to be caught as a hoarder in this life.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

~Luke 12:48~

Doing hard things with hard people is good for us.  I think we are most like Jesus as we learn to walk into those places without fear and without a calloused heart.  When we take His yoke and learn from the Greatest Teacher- the One who came to earth to show us the Way- I truly believe we will see our own lives turn into vessels of healing, light, and freedom for the captives all around us.  What a glorious hope and a glorious calling!  And maybe, just maybe, as we offer our lives to “the least of these” we will not only be rewarded in heaven, but will experience life abundantly and healing in ways we didn’t even know we needed.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
 The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

~Isaiah 58:9-12~

 

 

Building a Legacy

Two prayers that were continually on my tongue and swimming through my thoughts during our season of pruning went something like this:  Lord, give us enough light for the step we’re on and lead us in Your paths…..Lord, continue to work this together for good and redeem what still seems lost and broken.

In the infancy years of my faith, the book of Proverbs became a sort of daily guidebook for my life in Christ when other parts of the Bible seemed a bit too daunting and confusing to venture into.  Therefore, during the season of waiting and watching for the Lord’s plans to play out, settling into the wise counsel of Proverbs 3 felt like throwing a cozy blanket around my weary and wandering soul:

My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments,
 for length of days and years of life
    and peace they will add to you.

 Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
 So you will find favor and good success
    in the sight of God and man.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
 In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.

 Be not wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
 It will be healing to your flesh
    and refreshment to your bones.

 ~ Proverbs 3:1-8 ~

Simple truths to hold onto: bind love and faithfulness around me, ask Him to write His ways upon my heart, TRUST IN HIM, don’t trust in my own understanding of what surrounds me, acknowledge/seek/submit to Him, humbly acknowledge my own lack of wisdom, resolve to fear the Lord above ALL things.  And the more I wrapped up in this cozy nugget of wisdom, I could see that adding these truths to my life equaled out to a result worth pursuing: long lasting peace, favor/good success in the sight of God and man, straight paths, healing and refreshment.  We still weren’t exactly sure how to get there from where we stood, but as the months passed, Bart and I became more and more resolved to walk by faith and trust in His wisdom rather than our own earthly perspective.

:::

One thing became very clear to us as we sought the Lord and pleaded with Him for His wisdom and light for the path:  we were called to be builders.  By this time, we already had Isaac; and Ellie was now beginning to make her appearance known through my swelling abdomen.  It wasn’t that we hadn’t previously seen children as a gift.  We did truly treasure our role as parents.  However, we began to see that, although our desire and perspective of having children was pleasing to Him, as we were beginning to build our legacy on this earth, we had been using the wrong blueprints.

One of the first blooms of beauty to sprout from the pruning season was a newfound vision & desire for living life with an eternal perspective: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past.  Only what’s done for Christ will last.” (C.T. Studd)  Previously, we really did love God with a sincere love; but the majority of our decisions (& therefore the path of our life) looked like the rest of the world with a little “Christian-ese” mixed in.  We were in need of the Refiner’s Fire to burn away our old blueprints and lead us to His.

We began to get a glimpse of the path we had been on- our current blueprints for building, and what kind of house it was going to be, what sort of legacy it was going to leave.  It wasn’t a bad view at all: we aimed to raise good Christian kids, kids who would make good grades, go to college, eventually obtain a good job, get married to a loving spouse, and raise a family, etc.  We hoped our arrows were headed in a good direction.  But really, it was just the Christian version of the American Dream.  Our plans were more about our glory, our happiness, and were guided by an earthly kingdom- they did not bring glory to God.

As we leaned into Him-His wisdom, His truth, His plans- we began to see that our old blueprints weren’t wide enough, deep enough, high enough, or long lasting enough.  They didn’t leave room for God to be glorious in our midst.  They didn’t factor into the equation the reality that human souls are eternal- outlasting this temporary earthly tent. And the end result was a “house” that may be enviable on this earth, but God’s desire is something so much nobler and more magnificent for His children- a legacy grafted into His Kingdom that lasts throughout eternity.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

~ Isaiah 55:8-9 ~

However, as it is written:

What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him

 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

~ 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 ~

And so, over and over again, we began to humbly, repentantly acknowledge our need for His wisdom, His guidance, His Word to guide us in building our family with His Blueprints.  We knew we didn’t want to have regrets about the kind of foundation we laid, but we knew we were such slow learners.  We could see that we had worldly habits and thought patterns to uproot and even more glorious plans to discover and press into the soil of our legacy.  Our minds needed desperately to be renewed.  This was clearly a huge priority and as we prayed, we both began to see that, at least for a time, this calling deserved more quality time and attention than our lives were presently allowing.

It was then that we knew it was time for me to begin saying “no” to many extras so I could give the better “yes” to this season of laying a solid foundation.  So, as we said “no” to two incomes, I said “yes” to a tight budget & clipping coupons; I said “no” to making visible impact and “yes” to being hidden away to invest in the precious souls who were entrusted to us; I said “no” to pursuing personal dreams and ambitions and “yes” to uninterrupted presence at home; I said “no” to the affirmation of the world around me and “yes” to unacknowledged repetition of serving.  Philippians 2:3-7 became my mantra as I transitioned into my calling:

 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

:::

So, here I was- a full time Mom, surrendered to the holy and lowly calling of shepherding these sheep we had been given; I was postured to implement the new set of glorious Blueprints for Building a family, that was obviously going to be revealed in process as I walked it out.  I thought I was ready to be their teacher.  Little did I know I was just beginning to learn myself.

First of all, I had to learn how to find Him in the mundane routines of my simple day.  I had been preconditioned to only see the glorious in the bigger, newer, better, productive pursuits of life.  Slowly, but faithfully, He began to break through the boring tasks of my day with His Presence.  I started to sense Him leading me to invite Him into the small, the repetitious, the mindless tasks, the parts of my days I knew no one would care about.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

~ 1 Corinthians 10:31 ~

As I began to learn from Him how to do all things for the glory of God, He began to show me His glory in all of it.  I clearly remember the day I was making a PB&J sandwich for Isaac and getting such a deeply rooted sense of joy, knowing I was making that sandwich for God’s glory and it brought Him pleasure. I knew He was teaching me how to be faithful in the small things.

:::

Second, as I began to know and rely on His Presence in the hidden spaces, He began to show me that- despite the regular temper tantrums, battles for toys or attention, and overall in-my-face displays of sin that my kids were capable of- He loved my children with an unfailing, never ending, scandalous love.  Just like He loved me, His daughter, in spite of my sin.  And so, I learned to see my kids as little mirrors, that God was ever using to reflect back to me my own wandering, selfish, prideful, sin-sick heart.  So my Loving Heavenly Father was all the while modeling to me, as my parent, how to balance my ever swinging pendulum of grace and truth, long suffering and discipline.

“Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

~ Hebrews 12:9-11

:::

Third, He began to teach and remind me that the blueprints for my kids’ lives, personalities, and plans were hidden in Him.  As much as I might have certain hopes, plans, and desires for each of my children based on my perspective and dreams, He is the Creator of their very existence.  He “created [their] inmost being; ….knit [them] together in [their] mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)  He knows how their very DNA is formed.  “And even the very hairs of [their] head are all numbered.(Matthew 10:30) If he continually keeps track of the hairs on their head, then surely He can keep track of the moment by moment, day by day, year by year plans set into His eternal calendar.  When their lives take an unexpected curve, I can trust in His sovereign plan. He doesn’t need me to micromanage every detail of my kids’ lives.  However, He does invite me to be an active participant to partner with Him in the fleshing out of His glorious plans for my kids’ lives to bring Him glory.  But this will only be revealed to me to the extent to which I am plugged into Him through prayer.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

~ 1 Peter 1:3-4 ~

:::

Fourth, I noticed a natural tendency in my own heart to want to insulate and protect my kids from struggle, pain, and trouble.  When undesirable situations would arise, I would put on my Miss-Fix-It goggles and try to do everything in my power to create smooth pathways for my children to walk upon.  Over and over, my Heavenly Father would have to retrain my heart to the truth of the Upside Down Kingdom: without the training that trials produce, my children will live incomplete, immature lives, and will be left lacking in the end.   I desperately desire the fruit that will come into my children’s lives as a direct result of the struggles they face in this life.

 “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. …..Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

~ James 1:4, 12 ~

:::

Fifth, God began to show me that, in doing our part to build our legacy {His legacy, for His glory}- this multi-generational lineage of faith I found in God’s Blueprint for Building a Family- I had to be an active pursuer and possessor of the eternal treasures that I most desire to give my children.  How can I ever hope to pass down these eternal treasures if I do not make it a non-negotiable priority in my own daily life?  Somehow, this was all the motivation I needed to turn hopeful goals into discipline, then into a life that is continually transformed by the daily delight of walking with God.

If I want my children to pass onto their children and their children, etc. the greatest commandments, then the cornerstone of my earthly existence should be an unashamed pursuit of the love of Jesus and love of others.  I want my children to have no doubt of my love for Jesus and His Word.  I want them to witness a life given in sacrificial service to others in the name of Jesus- not as a duty, but as a delight.    If I miss the mark in a hundred other areas of parenting, yet get this one right- I still win; but if I distractedly pursue excellence in a hundred other earthly endeavors and miss this one, I risk losing it all.  This is not something I want to gamble with.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

~Matthew 22: 37-38 ~

:::

Not everyone has to go through such an intense, focused period of rewiring like our family did.  He just knew our hearts, especially mine, and how much regret I would carry if I didn’t get on a path to put first things first.   I’m thankful that repentance, grace, and growth is available to us every single day because I am still on this journey.  We don’t have to get pressured up to get it all perfect, but I surely don’t want to waste a day building something that won’t last.  When this fleeting mist of a life is complete, there is only one investment that will go with us- eternal souls that have been covered by the blood of the Lamb.

There is nothing I think I could dream up that would have more value or be more of a thrill than pouring my life out on the altar of knowing Him and bringing others into the riches of knowing Him, too.  I imagine that I only have a very minuscule role in this grand Building of souls in the Eternal Kingdom of God, but I have become determined to build my part, in my generation, according to His Blueprint and not my own; this will be the greatest privilege of my life.

God only knows how many times I have prayed that He would use me on this earth for His glory, and specifically in my own family line.  He alone could count the times I’ve pleaded with Him that He would bring a mighty wave of salvation and a zealous pursuit of His glory throughout our family line, leading straight to the Day when every knee will bow before His Throne!  Maybe one day in heaven He’ll let me watch the movie reel of time passing as one generation declares His glorious deeds to the next, each generation utterly captivated by love for Jesus…will each heart just fall like dominoes before His glory?

We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.

~ Psalm 78:4 ~

:::

As I dream of that day, I try to remind myself daily to keep my head in the game and keep my priorities straight.  I continue to lean on Him for the plan each day- the grace to keep my eyes on this unseen God and to keep pointing my kids to Him above all things.  These children still in my care, these eternal souls to shape….eventually it will be time to shoot them out like arrows into the world to do their part to bring glory to God on this earth.  And then it will be their turn to carry the torch of faith into a dark world.  Give us the grace and wisdom, O Lord, to build this house according to your blueprint and the courage to surrender our plans to you.

:::

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
 In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

 Children are a heritage from the Lord,
    offspring a reward from him.
 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
    are children born in one’s youth.
 Blessed is the man
    whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
    when they contend with their opponents in court.

~ Psalm 127 ~

 

Pruning

Sometimes, right in the middle of an ordinarily sweet life- not perfect, but good- unexpected trials come crashing onto the scene with such force that you wonder if you will ever know normal again.  As far as you could tell, you were bouncing along, living a good life- one that would please God, or so you thought- serving Him and seeking Him, bearing fruit, and mostly experiencing only minor trials of which to grumble about.  And then without warning, the blows come with a 1, 2, 3 punch.  Life as you have known it- safe, comfortable, blessed- has unraveled.  How can this unseen God, that you have trusted and grown to love, be good?  How could He be all powerful and worthy of worship if He could allow such pain, confusion, and loss to crash into your life like a wrecking ball?

These were some of the questions I had to wrestle through during a particularly hard season of life.  Looking back, Bart and I refer to this season as the trifecta of trials.  I have no doubt that Satan’s goal was to flatten us, to turn the lights out on our faith.  I still get stinging tears and a lump in my throat when I look back to those years.  I can see the dark days, the rubble that lay all around us- too quiet, but raging with emotion and emptiness; the paralyzing mess of relationships, brokenness, and dreams that had been all but completely obliterated in nearly every category of our lives.  Then as if to kick us while we were down, the difficult loss of a baby that we had prayed for.  If I reflect back on it for too long, I can feel the hollow places in my soul of not knowing quite how to move forward.  Life as we knew it was no longer recognizable.  I spent so many hours of so many days just pouring out my confused and bleeding heart on pages- journals overflowing with wounded words, questions that had no earthly answers, and stained with tears that only God saw falling.

I had read Jesus’ warnings to me, recorded in Holy Writ:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

– John 16:33 –

But somehow amid the fruitful life of loving and serving God and placing each new puzzle piece of life in its proper place, we naively assumed we were positioned to escape these kinds of troubles.  Had we unknowingly disappointed God or brought this unraveling upon ourselves?  How could a life of following Jesus lead us into such painful seasons of deep heartache?  And where was the overcoming part?  It sure didn’t appear that anything good could come out of this season of despair for us and for the numerous bleeding hearts all around us.  How could this be the Kingdom of God?

Each day I can remember wrestling through these questions with God.  Bringing my raw heart before Him was so hard- my flesh wanted to numb the pain with new tasks or worldly pleasure or maybe to just run away from this God who I was questioning…. but I was desperate for a hint of light in this dungeon of darkness.  I would sit in the living room of our house in Mt. Carmel and pour over Scripture searching for answers and for drops of hope to cling to, or go for a long walk/run and pound out the overwhelming emotions.  Bart would get up early in the morning and wrestle it out with God- running into the arms of Jesus in the high school hallways.  There was nothing glamorous about these days.  Our house was not full of laughter and the same bubbly joy that was our old normal.  We continued to wonder how any good could come out of these ashes, but God was faithful to grant us the dose of strength needed to get us through one day at a time.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
 As they pass through the Valley of Baka {the Valley of Tears},
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
 They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.”

~ Psalm 84:5-7 ~

We were so weak in this season.  We did not know where all of this would lead.  We didn’t know where life was headed.  We struggled through all the whys and hows and the continual swirl of unanswered questions.  But one thing we were learning was to set our hearts on pilgrimage.  This valley of tears, called life, was not our home.  This truth became our lifeline.  Whereas pre-wreckage, we trusted that we were ultimately heaven bound, we didn’t necessarily live our earthly days and decisions out of that place.  The shambles we were surrounded by required us to set our eyes more deeply and constantly on the hope of redemption- we began to long for the day when all the brokenness and pain of this world would be swallowed up forever.  There was no quick and easy fix.  There was no way we could continue to live out of a false sense of hope that life would move along smoothly if we just followed Jesus.

Little by little, He began to show us His pathway through this valley.  This world is not our home.  We are just passing through this earthly life: foreigners and strangers in this broken world, looking for a country all our own, in heaven (Hebrews 11:13-14).  And we began to look more intently at Jesus as our model for walking through our trials:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”  ~ Isaiah 53:3 ~

 For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  ~ Hebrews 12:2-3 ~

:::

As we looked to the cross, we found a path to hope and healing.  There was no going back to how things had been before, but could there be another hidden pathway through this valley of tears?  Could these scars have purpose that I couldn’t yet see?  Would I be able live forward without a cloud of fear of when the next blow would hit? I felt so vulnerable.  Did I have even a mustard seed of faith to believe that He could still yet bring any beauty out of these ashes?  If God’s good plan of redemption for mankind included the suffering, pain, and earthly scorn of His One and Only Son, could I believe that he could still be good in the midst of my own suffering?

Every day I felt tested, a new opportunity to wake up and decide where and in whom I was going to cling to for the strength to keep fighting for hope.  God’s Word was like my manna, my Bread of Life, my healing balm for the wounds still very open.  Verses that I used to read through and apply to everyday inconveniences or annoying mishaps suddenly had new life- giving me strength, footing, and some sense of direction:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  ~ James 1:2-4 ~

 “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. ”  ~ 1 Peter 1:6 ~

We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.”           ~ Acts 14:22  ~

So this messy trifecta of trials and the waves of aftershocks were meant to test me, to refine me, and to be a hallway to walk through on my journey to my final destination.  As painful as the days continued to be, they were not without purpose.  They were meant to reveal the size of my faith- as small as it was- and to grow it, mature it, deepen it, and to make me more like my Savior.  The Refiner’s Fire was burning away what remained of my selfishness, pride, lust for worldly accomplishment, and desire to store up treasures on earth.

It was with those truths tucked deep inside of my heart, I took the tiniest steps of radical faith to consider these trials to be joy- believing that my Loving Father must see what is hidden from my sight.  And with my sights set squarely upon the unseen, upside down Kingdom of God- I began to find freedom from the anxiety and fear of the trials that might still lay ahead.  This earth is not my home.  I am a stranger here.  In Him, I can walk through whatever valleys lay ahead of me and know that His grace will be sufficient for me there too.  His Presence can turn any valley of tears into a place where I can find pools of refreshing water simply because He is there with me.

All over our house (above my kitchen sink, my bathroom mirror, my nightstand) and in the dashboard of my car, you would’ve found the evidence of holy soul medication:

” Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  ~ 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ~

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”  ~ Job 13:15 ~

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  ~Psalm 34:18 ~

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  ~ Romans 8:18 ~

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  ~Romans 8:28 ~

And I would gulp down these truths, deep into my heart, mind, and soul.  I began to see that my eyes had been so previously fixed on seizing what is seen- here and now on this earth- that I was missing out on the eternal weight of glory that is unseen and eternal.  Somehow these trials were given the “yes” from God to enter my life, not as a punishment, but for some sort of eternal good- lasting forever, and creating more value than if life had continued on the path I thought was best.  I may not see all the glory revealed on this earth, but I can yet hope in Him to see it when I arrive at Home.  I learned that He was my ever present comforter when I was crushed in spirit- this unseen God drew near to me.  I began to put more and more stock of my heart, time, and treasures in heaven, where the eternal glory lies- where thieves cannot steal from me and moths cannot destroy (Luke 12:33).

He changed me, us, in a multitude of ways.  Carrying brokenness and so many shreds of an unraveled life will do that to a person.  And after many days of plodding through that valley, you look back and see that He has actually carried you.  Your heart feels bigger, more tender, more aware of the needs of this broken world.  Your eyes seem to have changed too- you see how fleeting this life really is and how we only get this one chance to spend it on the things that will truly count in eternity.  You look down at your scars and realize that those are just the beauty marks to remind you of the ways you’ve been able to fellowship with Jesus in your own suffering.

The teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount become truths that actually make sense to you now:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

~ Matthew 5:3-5 ~

Somehow, in His upside down Kingdom, it is not those who always have a smooth ride through life that are considered the most blessed.  Those are the ones who have already received their treasure in this life.  But for those who have suffered, mourned, and been broken down by this life- God has hidden treasures for these…hidden revelation of glory yet to be seen.  And in this way, our good, good Father gets the final victory over the sin, brokenness, and death of this world.  It is not a fairy tale- One Great Day, even the ashes that remain will be turned into beauty.  This is our great hope that we cling to as we journey through this Valley of Baka.

:::

It wasn’t until much time had passed that He began to show me that sometimes, right in the middle of an ordinarily sweet life of fruitfulness, the Gardener comes and cuts away even perfectly good branches.  And for a season, the once blooming tree shows no signs of beauty or life.  And maybe the tree even wonders what just happened to it.  The tree was doing what it was created and planted to do- grow fruit.  What the tree doesn’t know is that the Gardener has a plan for the tree to bear even more fruit in another season.  And so, because the tree has a wise, good, and sovereign Gardener, the time of pruning must come.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 

~ John 15:1-2 ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fruitful

I remember the first time my parents took us to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.  At 14,000ft +. I knew the views were spectacular, even as a young elementary student.  Several things I remember about that trip: the cold thin air, the colorful windbreakers we put on as we climbed closer to the top, the winding narrow roads up the side of the mountain, and the rails that kept us from falling down the steep side of the mountain overlook.  I don’t so much remember being scared of the edge.  In fact, I think we have several pictures of us standing right up next to the rails with the spectacular Rocky Mountain views behind us.  I was young and I was fearless.

Flash forward to the summer of 2016 in Pittsburgh, PA.  We went up the Monongahela Incline with our kids and Bart’s parents to take in the skyline of Pittsburgh below.  However, the scene played out much differently on this cliff.  My legs were paralyzed from moving closer than 15 feet from the edge.  I simply could not walk my toes up to the edge like I had done at Pikes Peak.  My imagination only had room for one view: a tumble down the edge of the cliff.  As my palms got sweaty, I became more and more ready to gather my chicks back into the incline to go back down where my footing was sure- back to my comfort zone.  Clearly, I was no longer the same young and fearless girl.

Unfortunately, this contrasting image of me at the peak of a cliff is telling of another story inside of me as well.   This time it is a story of unseen glories, views into the supernatural wonders of God’s kingdom being built in us and all around us, True Beauty for our souls to behold, a story of abundant and lasting prosperity, and fruitfulness.  It is a question being asked inside every person’s soul every single day: Is the risk of stepping outside of my comfort zone to see the possibility of glories unseen worth it?  Or am I content to risk missing out on the unknown glory for the sake of what I know to be comfort?

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It’s noteworthy how many times the Bible uses agriculture to teach us eternal truths about how the Kingdom of God works.  I often tease because Bart is an Ag-wannabe, but I too have become captivated by the lessons to be learned via study of the laws of growing things.  The growth of trees from tiny seeds has become a peculiar source of interest to me in recent months.

In the middle of the Bible is the book of Psalms- a book of poetry, songs, and prayers to God.  The very first chapter of this beautiful book eludes to the fact that mankind has some similarities to trees.  And not only that, but He uses trees to instruct us on how we can yield fruit and be prosperous in our earthly lives:

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”

Psalm 1:1-3

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God is the Ultimate Gardener with more than just a green thumb.  His desire is to bless us, in Christ, with His divine favor and show us the way toward true soul prosperity- the kind that lasts all the way throughout eternity.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. ”  -John 15:1

Any gardener knows that to grow a plant, you first have to put a tiny seed into the ground.  In time, with patience and proper care, under the dark covering of the soil the seed starts to germinate and then sprout.  Eventually it pops through the soil, displaying the evidence of what has been happening underground.  Once a seedling emerges from the soil and begins to show signs of maturity and growth, experienced gardeners recognize it is time to transplant the young plant into a more spacious place to encourage healthy growth.

When I became a believer in Jesus, I was like that tiny seed underground.  God was doing a very significant work in me under the cover of the dark soil.  In His time, as I stretched up towards the Son, I began to emerge up from the hidden place.  My Gardener was good to tend to me with the ingredients that are just right for a tender seedling.  However, at the proper time, it was time for a transplant.  In my story, this timing coincided with the time I left home and went off to college.

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In some ways, when we are transplanted, we are like Abram:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation,  and I will bless you; I will make your name great,  and you will be a blessing.”

Genesis 12:1-2

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In order to make our lives fruitful for His glory, there comes a time we have to be uprooted from our comfort zone and planted into a rich bed of soil that He prepares specifically for us.  If we stay planted where we’ve always been, we risk stunting our growth and missing out on the fruitfulness and prosperity God wants to produce in and through our earthly lives.

When I look back at my college years and early years of marriage, I cannot help but be filled with overwhelming gratitude.  At the time Bart & I knew that we were blessed, but I’m not sure we knew the extent to which God was pouring out His goodness and grace over this particular season of our lives.  We attended a secular college, but God made sure to plant us in rich, fertile soil that was fed by streams of Living Water, where our roots could grow strong in Him.  For a few years it was as if we were enrolled in God’s greenhouse of growth alongside numerous other believers who became dear friends.  Our Gardener had provided a perfectly diverse blend of people and opportunities to help us mature in the ways of His Kingdom- and often way outside of what was normal to us.  At different occasions, I wondered if our greater purpose during this season was to behold the glory of our invisible King and less about gaining any kind of worldly progress.  And yet, without us noticing, He was causing a different kind of progress to take place.

Many times when you are planting a plant or a tree in a new place, you will break up the “root ball” with your hands.  This may seem like you are harming the plant by tearing a bit at that established root system, but in reality, you are preparing the plant for optimal growth and nourishment in a new environment.  We are often so afraid to branch out and reach for the godly relationships that would help prosper our souls.  Sometimes even as believers we are afraid to tear away at the root system that we have grown comfortable with for so long, not recognizing that the soil we are currently planted in is stunting our growth and is causing our branches to be dry and fruitless at best…..producing bad fruit at the very worst.

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This is where the cliff analogy is helpful to me.  I fear that there are many of us who profess belief in Jesus but very few who are willing to risk the scary uprooting to be planted in more fertile soil.  We may have had moments in our youth, like my Pikes Peak moment- fearless of stepping past the threshold of our comfort zone.  At one point in our story, maybe we were a young plant, popping through the soil, growing up toward the Son.  And we were comfortable, safe in that place.

Until the Gardener started shifting things around a bit.  We enjoy this little pot we’ve grown into.  We like this soil and the pieces our roots have attached to.  This is a safe place to stay.  The thought of being uprooted- whether physically going somewhere new, or being replanted relationally with a lifestyle shifting toward those Living Waters- all of it makes your hands sweaty.  All we can imagine is a tumble down that cliff.  So, like I did in Pittsburgh, we reject the uprooting.  We close ourselves off from the possibility of beholding greater glories, growing deeper roots, and more abundant fruit on our life branches.  NO, we reason: a quick glance at a safe distance is best.  Control is best. Moving any closer to the edge is dangerous and won’t people just think I am foolish if I change NOW?  And so the Gardener lets us stay in the plastic pot when He created us to be planted by streams of Living Water.  

Each and everyday the invitation comes from deep inside of our souls.  We know we were made for something more.  But as we “grow up” we suffocate that yearning.  We stop growing altogether.  The risk seems too great, too far outside of our comfort zone, too far removed from the visible kingdom we’ve built around ourselves.  We stifle the questions stirring in our hearts.  We like the way we’ve always done things.  We often get so filled up with superficial glories and busied with earthly routines that eventually we don’t even remember what it feels like to behold the One and Only Glory that can take our breath away.  And so we live the days and seasons of our lives mostly fruitless in regards to God’s kingdom and pleasure.  We are given this one mist of a life and, for fear of stepping over our threshold of comfort, we waste it away on earthly checklists and temporary treasures.

But to those that can find the courage to say “yes” to the possibility of seeing greater glories, more abundant fruitfulness, and deep soul prosperity- these tender plants will surrender to the uprooting and replanting.  And these “will be called the trees of righteousness [strong and magnificent, distinguished for integrity, justice, and right standing with God], The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3)

And everyday, the choice is ours.

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We would be wise to heed to the warning found in first verse of Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.”  In contrast, we are counseled that if we want to be a tree planted firmly by streams of water, yielding fruit in season, and prospering in all we do- we will be people who, “delight in the law of the Lord, and on His law he [habitually] meditates day and night.

When we allow our Gardener to replant us, opening ourselves to new relationships and new experiences that might help us to find greater delight in God’s Word and ways, we are blessed.  Our souls begin to breathe fresh life, yielding good fruit, and naturally producing green leaves to the glory of God.

After the replanting in my own life, God was so faithful to surround me with people who were several steps ahead of me in their walk of faith.  These were people who sincerely loved God, loved His Word, loved to worship Him in Spirit and truth, and who made themselves available to mentor and disciple me in my own faith walk.  They helped me understand God’s Word and lived so rooted in Him that I could easily see the good fruit it was producing in their lives.  It made me yearn for this soul prosperity in my own life and open myself to the vulnerability of asking questions of how to get on that path for myself.  God used these more mature believers as stakes around my trunk to help me grow stronger as I was just beginning to see the blooms of fruit in my own life.

In God’s economy, this fruit comes by way of the inner man, the spiritual unseen part of who we are in Christ.  As we are surrendered to the process of being re-planted near streams of Living Water, a very natural process of health and growth begins to take place from the inside out, producing the fruit of the Holy Spirit flowing through us: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) He displays within us and through us the beautiful character of God through daily life situations that normally would’ve led us down a path below our new identity in Christ.

Another aspect of the fruitful life is the reality that fruit contain seeds that produce even more fruit in time.  It multiplies.  Jesus says that when the seed fell onto good soil, “It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” (Luke 8:8)  Last time I checked, a hundred times more than what was sown is extremely prosperous.  God is pleased to bring multiplication to our life in Him as we grow into a mature tree with the sap of His Spirit pulsing through our branches.  He wants to use us to be a blessing to others, which is for our joy and His glory.  He told Adam and Eve to, “be fruitful and increase in number.” (Genesis 1:28) The final instructions Jesus passed onto His disciples was, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations….” (Matthew 28:19) And then we see the beginning of the church experiencing the fruit Jesus spoke about- “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42, 47)

God measures fruitfulness in both our inward life of molding us into the image of Christ; and also by way of allowing the sharing of our faith walk with unbelievers or younger believers to multiply the fruit around us.  When we are not walking with the wicked, standing with the sinners, or sitting with the mockers; but rather planted by streams of water, delighting in His Word, we should live with an expectancy of yielding fruit in our lives.  Our daily life may not necessarily be easy, but it should be characterized by this ongoing natural harvest of fruitfulness and soul prosperity.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”  

-John 15:5-8

So often we are deceived to think of God as this mysterious Being sitting on a throne with a long list of requirements, just wanting to take from us all the time.  After the Lord replanted me into a different bed of soil, surrounded by growing believers who readily poured into my life, and began to illuminate the beauty of living according to His Word, I wasn’t tempted to think of Him in this way any longer.  I experienced firsthand the ways He was causing my soul to prosper and be fruitful.  And little by little multiplication was happening.  Discipleship was happening- both in my own maturity and allowing me to take part in others’ maturing process.  I was becoming a tree firmly planted and growing stronger and taller in Christ.  Staying planted by that stream of Living Water each day was allowing me to remain in Him which led to regular answered prayers.  The invisible Kingdom was growing around me everyday- more expansive and more beautiful.  It was and always will be worth the risk to step up to the edge, heart racing & palms sweating- because it is only in that place that we can behold His glorious works on the earth!

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They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

-Jeremiah 17:8-

 

 

Delight

When you’ve been wandering in the desert wastelands for awhile, you pick up on a couple of fundamental truths: trust & faithfulness.  Trust in the Lord that He will do His part to lead you to someplace good.  Faithfulness: cultivate a life that pleases Him in every possible way.  These are the rich ingredients that begin to turn the wilderness into a dance floor.  It begins to matter less WHERE you are, but rather WHO is with you in that desolate place.  Back and forth you go- Him leading, you trusting and learning to be faithful to submit and follow.  You are learning how to dance with an invisible God.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Philippians 4:12-13

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The lonely years for me felt like being “in want” a lot.  Sometimes I would chase what I thought I wanted only to come up unsatisfied in the end, discontent & bewildered.  Other times, by faith, I was learning to run to Jesus with my “wanting”.  And somehow, through Him, I would discover a deeper desire hidden beneath my seeking that could only be fully satisfied in Him.  These small tastes of a satisfied, contented soul started a domino effect that altogether altered my heart’s taste buds.

Taste and see that the Lord is goodblessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.” -Psalm 34:8-9

It wasn’t that He was only good to cause the spiritually blind to see and dead to come to life, although the gift of salvation is the pinnacle of His goodness to us; but my heart was beginning to find it’s central pulse of delight in Him.  I wasn’t going to find satisfaction in God PLUS a handful of other things I was longing and praying for.  I was uncovering the true secret of contentment in all circumstances: simply Jesus, with or without the other fulfilled longings.   The lonely wilderness gave me the priceless gift of transformed desires.  Being with Jesus became my one thing, my heart’s delight, and my secret treasure.  Yes, I still had many hopes and dreams: “Lord, my every desire is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Psalm 39:9), but by offering them to Jesus, I knew He would lead me to whatever was best for me at the root of my desires.

Trust in the Lord and do good; Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LordAnd He will give you the desires of your heart.”

Psalm 37: 3-4

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He’s always working, always orchestrating His story.  He’s always getting the glory in the unseen places even if we miss out on it because we’re captivated by lesser things.  This is why I’m so thankful for His grace to drag me into the lonely wilderness and teach me to delight in Him- so I could watch the secret glories unfold.  I often wonder how the path of my life might be different if His grace hadn’t grabbed my full attention when He did.

I was stepping pretty far outside of my comfort zone and I think my parents were too, by letting me go.  Seventeen years old on a mission trip to Mexico: no skills to offer, not much maturity to speak of really, and no clue what to expect.  It was a trip that changed my life in several significant ways.  I brushed skin with poverty like I had never experienced or imagined in my sheltered life.  And yet the juxtaposition of the peoples’ joy against the enormity of their earthly needs made me ache for the secrets of the Kingdom that they possessed, which I knew I lacked.  My appetite for worldly things was shrinking by the day.

Only in looking back can I see the full measure of beauty in what He was doing in my heart in that place, far from the comforts of home.  “Trust in the Lord and do good….cultivate faithfulness…..delight in the Lord…..He will give you the desires of your heart.”  

One of the days midway through the trip, our group stopped by a shanty of a home to visit with the family who lived there.  Almost all of us crowded into this tiny, one room, cement block, open windowed abode.  I vividly remember 2 things about this scene in my life:  1) The man of the house displayed hospitality by offering us beverages that I’m sure they could not afford to spare.  2) I saw my future husband for the first time.

Bart was one of the first ones to step into the cement block doorway and so he was one of a few seated on the only “couch” type seats in the house.  As we were crammed into the doorway, I stood listening to the back and forth conversation between the translator and the man.  For some reason, I was drawn to look across the room and caught a sight I can still replay in my brain like it was moments ago.  Bart very nonchalantly reached into his pocket and grabbed the handful of money he had planned on using to buy souvenirs at the market later that day.  Then he very slyly stuffed the money down between the tattered couch cushions….a treasure to be discovered by the family later on.  He didn’t think anyone was watching, but the Lord grabbed my attention and let me in on a secret that would mark the rest of my earthly days: this is the man you’re gonna marry.

Well I was done for.  Suddenly this boy who had been one of my best “guy” friends since middle school (but never had one interest to date) looked completely different to me.  It was as if God had lifted the veil to allow me to see what He sees- the heart.  In that lonely wilderness season, as I had been pursuing the path to delight in Jesus, He led me straight to the hidden desire of my own heart.

“…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” –1 Samuel 16:7

The rest of the trip, I mostly avoided Bart- scared of my own newfound enchantment towards him.  I watched him from afar, though.  I observed a heart that was growing for God, a heart that was humbly serving others, and a heart that was joyfully playing with the Mexican children in the streets- a man who would be my husband one day.

Upon arriving home, I recall telling both my best friend and my Mom about this crazy epiphany I’d had about Bart.  I’m pretty sure they thought I was nuts.  Some months later I discovered that he had been making his own observations about me on the trip, knowing something had shifted inside of my heart also, and wondering if I would one day become his wife.  We were running the same race in the same direction- albeit terribly imperfectly.  We were both pursuing God as faithfully as we knew how.  A seed had been planted and a vision had been imparted of what was to come.

“For the vision is yet for the appointed timeIt hastens toward the goal and it will not failThough it tarries, wait for itFor it will certainly come, it will not delay.” -Habakkuk 2:3

It would still be another 18 months after Mexico before we would ever officially be more than friends.  Many times throughout that year and a half, one of the two of us was tempted to rush forward.  But God had plans to mature us both some more before it was time to bring us together.  It was hard to wait on God’s timing, but in hindsight I see so clearly that the waiting was for our good and His glory- He was strengthening our faith.

Commit your way to the LordTrust also in Him, and He will do it. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light. And your judgment as the noonday. Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him -Psalm 37: 5-7

 So often once we receive what we were desiring from God, we idolize the gift above the Giver of good gifts.  And in doing so, we taint the gift.  We turn from God and look to the gifts to satisfy our souls in ways that only the Giver was designed to do.  The gifts are given to bless us- for every good father loves to give good gifts to his children.  The gifts are meant to be a means to draw us into worshiping the only One who is truly deserving- the One who is eternally worthy of all our earthly crowns.  When we cling to these gifts- these fulfilled desires of our heart- we cut off the flow of our own hearts delighting in God first.  And quite simply, we miss out on the full measure of the blessing of our gifts.

However, when you are a citizen of the upside down Kingdom, you learn that the King delights to give His children good gifts: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17)  But, he knows our propensity towards short circuiting the flow of blessings- our bent toward bowing to the created rather than the Creator of all things.  And so he instructs us to be patient and let Him give and take away in His own perfect timing.

The good and perfect gifts that He gives are the ones that set our hearts ablaze with gratitude for His undeserved goodness in our lives.  He delights to give us the desires of our hearts- especially good things that cause our hearts to rejoice in Him above all.  And when we receive these pieces of His beautiful plan for us- these fulfilled desires of our hearts- with open hands of faith filled gratitude rather than closed hands of clenching fear, He is able to multiply the blessing and cause it to grow.  Over time, the fruit of HIS good gifts grow deeper, richer, and more satisfying than a lifetime full of empty treasures.  His treasures are seeds that will continue yielding a harvest year after year, even after we have completed the number of our days on this dusty earth.

Delighting in Jesus is the key that unlocks so many doors to our destiny.  Everyday, over and over again, He invites us to come to His table and be satisfied with the best things: namely the mysterious glory of Himself.  The irony is that the lonely wilderness seasons are the training ground to strip us of our old taste buds and prepare us to rightly receive all that He has piled up in His heavenly storehouses to pour into our laps.

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without costWhy spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.” -Isaiah 55:1-2

For as many days that the Lord has already gifted Bart and I with the sweet fellowship of sharing life together- through the good days and bad, peace and strife- and any number of unknown days we have ahead to partner in the delights of this journey; these precious gifts are but a foretaste of what is yet to come.  Even the fulfillment of these desires, and the fruit that has come as a result over time of walking together with Jesus- these earthly delights still only serve as another greater vision that “hastens toward the goal“.  One day, we will pour out our last drop of life and finish this earthly tenure.  We will open our eyes and find that our faith has finally given way to sight.  The Promised Land that we have been seeking will be ours forevermore, in Jesus.

“…you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” -Psalm 16:10-11

But until that day comes, this chapter of our story serves as a reminder that I’ve already been given one of the greatest secrets of the Kingdom in 15 powerful words to live by:

“Delight yourself in the LordAnd He will give you the desires of your heart.”

-Psalm 37:4-